Front Door to Cuba

Notes on Bola de Nieve

"Our America [Cuba and Latin America] springs neither from Rousseau nor Washington, but from itself!" - José Martí, 1893

Yo soy un hombre triste que me paso la vida muy alegre. (I am a sad man who passes my life very happily.) - Bola de Nieve

Before he became the renowned musical figure known as "Bola de Nieve" (snow ball) and one of the most charismatic cultural figure of his times, Ignacio Villa was born in the Havana suburb of Guanabacoa, on September 11 1911.

His mother, Inez Fernandez, was an accomplished rumba dancer, and his father, Domingo Villa, a cook. Ignacio attended a private primary school, and began his musical training at the age of 12. He graduated from the Escuela Normal para Maestros in 1927, but he was not allowed to attend the University of Havana, so he took a job as a piano player at the Cinema Carral, a silent movie theatre in Guanabacoa.

His first major break came in early 1930. As he played the piano at the Biltmore Hotel Seville in Havana, Cuban singer Rita Montaner saw him perform and asked him to play for her.

Another break came three years later in Mexico. Montaner (the headliner) was sick and could not perform, and Villa substituted for her. He sang the afrocanción "Bito Manué," adapted from the famous poem by Nicolás Guillén and a legend emerged. It was after this performance that Montaner referred to him affectionately as "Bola de Nieve," a name he embraced humbly but proudly.

After the tour ended and Montaner returned to Cuba, Bola remained in Mexico, where he lived most of his life. He soon had his first solo performance at the Teatro Politeama.

Bola was often compared as a singer and performer to Louis Armstrong, his North American twin. They shared similar physical attributes, and many creative and artistic sensibilities. They were humble, humorous, charming and sophisticated. Bola's original musical style is sometimes compared to French Chansonier.

Because he was able to sing in a number of languages, including Spanish, Catalan, French, Italian, English and Portuguese, Bola shared the stage with all the big musical names of his time. His creative output showcased the strong African influences on Cuban culture.

A complex personality, in public as much as in private, Bola was very discreet about his homosexuality, but not so far as denying it.

His music universalized Cuban musical culture, taking mambo, rumba and folk songs and making his own "Bola de Nieve" statement, which were celebrated in Europe, Asia and the U.S., as well as Mexico, Argentina and South America.

On August 20 1971, Bola presided over an homage to Rita Montaner at the Amadeo Roldan Theater. Less than two months later, on October 2, Bola died in Mexico City. He was buried in Cuba.

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